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Polish Jazz for Dummies: 60 Years of Jazz from Poland

Cezary L. Lerski By

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One man was especially important for jazz to develop and become an important fixture in the Polish cultural landscape: Leopold Tyrmand, a writer and enfant terrible of Warsaw's cultural elite. Well dressed and articulate, he was fiercely anticommunist and very knowledgeable on the subject of jazz music. Tyrmand wrote and published the first books and articles about jazz in Poland, helped to organize the initial jazz gatherings and is credited with the creation of the most famous festival, the Jazz Jamboree.

1960s

Growing from its infancy into the 1960s, Polish jazz became more diverse, more sophisticated and more stylish. Along with the political stabilization of "real socialism" in Poland, art and culture began to stabilize as well. During the 1960s, Polish jazz evolved into three basic styles: Dixieland (traditional), straight-ahead (mainstream), and avant-garde (free).

Many bands played their own version of "the original New Orleans style" of jazz, basically mimicking the Dixieland revival that had taken place earlier in Western Europe. They toured frequently, recorded many popular records and helped Polish jazz gain acceptance amongst the wider public. As time passed, Dixieland jazz became more professional and produced many excellent players.

The increased interest in jazz also blossomed into a growing acceptance of more demanding styles. It is difficult to clearly mark the distinction between mainstream and avant-garde jazz in the Polish jazz of the 1960s and 1970s; too many musicians walked the fine line between the two. Perhaps the best approach to analyze the modern jazz in Poland is to focus on its leading figures.

Not surprisingly, Komeda, Kurylewicz and Trzaskowski, all of them formerly of Melomani, became leading figures. Interestingly, another "giant" of Melomani fame, "Dudus" Matuszkiewicz, initially followed a much more lucrative livelihood as a composer of popular music for television and cinema but later on came back to his first love -jazz. During the 1960s, both Kurylewicz and Trzaskowski were exponents of the so-called Third Stream, the hybrid of jazz and philharmonic music. This fascination with more "serious" music and an attraction to contemporary techniques of composition overlapped with composers of contemporary Polish music such as Baird, Schoefer and Penderecki. Although controversial and not always satisfying, Third Stream experiments expanded the vocabulary of jazz and enhanced both artistic sensitivity and its overall image.

Krzysztof Komeda's role in Polish jazz cannot be explained in merely a few words. Genius, composer, visionary, collaborator and leader cannot fully describe him. How could this very average pianist and rather dull improviser with a medical degree make such a great impact on Polish jazz? How could all of the musicians who played with him emphasize what an overwhelming impact his music and his personality made on them? His music is still alive, inspiring new artists and conquering new hordes of listeners more than three decades after his tragically early death at the age of 38. The music of Komeda escapes simple classification and description. During his life, Komeda released only one album, Astigmatic, but a release with more influence on Polish jazz has yet to be recorded.

In 1962 a young trumpet player called Tomasz Stanko, created the Jazz Darings, later described by jazz critic J.E. Berndt as the "first European free jazz combo." During the late 1960s, many avant-garde musicians in Poland were discovering the free jazz concepts of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Interestingly, due to the isolation of the country, the Polish style developed independently. Some of the new names soon became very significant, such as trumpeter Andrzej Przybielski, bass players Helmut Nadolski, Jacek Bednarek and Czeslaw Gladkowski and alto saxophonist Zbigniew Seifert. In 1968, Seifert joined the newly formed Stanko Quintet, soon switched from alto sax to electric violin, and the next chapter of European jazz history began. Stanko Quintet disbanded in 1973 on the pick of its creative potential and after achieving cult- like following in Europe. During next few years Quintet's violinist Zbigniew Seifert became leading European jazz musician and the first violist capable to "transcend the spirit of Coltrane music. Tragically, his promising American and world career abruptly ended with his death to leukemia in 1979.

Gradually, as the '60s came to an end, new talents emerged and fresh musicians began to play more important roles. Some had already made their mark, such as the Zbigniew Namyslowski Quartet, Wlodzimierz Nahorny and the best Polish vocal group ever: NOVI Singers. Others, such as the extraordinary pianists Mieczyslaw Kosz carried the legacy of the jazz art form into the next decade.

1970s

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